Here we’ll be looking at the different kinds of offerings that are attested to in tradition, with a little bit of information about the context in which they might be offered. Before we get to that, though, I think it’s important to make it clear that these aren’t the only things that are appropriate for offering. A lot of Gaelic Polytheists make offerings with non-traditional foods, drinks, and other kinds of goods, and many of us have found that things like coffee are often well-received. It’s important to remember, however, that not everybody has the same kind of relationship with An Trì Naomh as you might; different relationships mean different expectations, so what works for one might not work for the other.
When deciding what to offer, trust your instincts first.
There are a few things to bear in mind when making an offering:
- Do make your offering sincerely. You can say a prayer or speak from the heart as you make your offering
- Do take some time after making your offerings to just sit and be. Contemplate your purpose. Be mindful; you may or may not receive communication from whoever you’re making your offering to, but you should always allow space for it. Having said that…
- Do not expect rainbows, butterflies, and showers of mystical glitter every time you pray or make an offering. It’s great when you do have that kind of connection, but it doesn’t happen for everyone, all the time. Although of course…
- Do not expect it will never happen to you, either. It may, it may not. It’s not really up to you; all you can do is listen. Be
- Do not feel like every time you make an offering it has to be an elaborate and formal rite. Unless you want it to be like that
- Do not eat your offerings
- Do consider what you’re offering and make sure it won’t damage the environment or harm wildlife; remember that some foods may be poisonous to animals
- Do not break the bank. You don’t have to offer a huge amount every day
When it comes to deciding what to offer, it’s up to you. You might prefer to concentrate on making more traditional offerings at festivals and mix things up at other times, you might prefer only to make traditional offerings… You might prefer to just go with the flow and offer whatever you have to hand at the time. Whatever works for you. And however often.
Some traditional offerings of food include:
Other types of offerings:
Milk was an extremely important product to the pre-Christian and early medieval Gaelic economy so it’s no surprise that it was (and is) a common offering. It can be poured on the ground to the daoine sìth or spirits who we share our spare with, or who inhabit certain places, like fairy knolls or prehistoric mounds that are believed to be gateways to the Otherworld and the abodes of the Good Folk or gods. A little milk can be left on the table or the doorstep at night for any spirits who pass by while everyone is sleeping.1 Clean water and/or some food can be left our for the same purpose.2
The Gruagach is a spirit who looks after the herds out in the pastures. Offerings of milk were made to the Gruagach each week as a thanks for their work safeguarding the herds and to ensure she continued to do so.3 Another source, from Evans-Wentz, says that milk was poured to the fairies each night and failure to observe this resulted in the best cow of the herd being ‘taken’ by them:
“An elder in my church knew a woman who was accustomed, in milking her cows, to offer libations to the fairies. The woman was later converted to Christ and gave up the practice, and as a result one of her cows was taken by the fairies. Then she revived the practice.”4
Some sources mention the offering was poured onto a flat, round, hollowed stone in the fields where the cows were grazed. In the Highlands, such a stone was called Leac na Gruagaich, or ‘Flagstone of the Gruagach.’5
In Ireland, whatever milk was spilled on the ground during milking was said to be for the fairies, “for faeries need a little milk.”6 A little milk was poured to them after the cows had been milked in the field as well.
Caudle is an egg-nogg-like drink made from milk, eggs and a little oatmeal, although modern recipes tend to also include a little sugar and other flavourings like nutmeg and whisky. A special caudle can be made for Bealltainn, and it’s traditionally drunk at the bonfire along with the bannocks that are made specially for the occasion (see below). Libations of the caudle should be made at the same time, or else poured into a hollowed stone as with milk for the Gruagach.7
A thick caudle can be made and pasted onto the festival bannock (such as the strùthan Mhìcheil) in layers, with each layer being allowed to dry slowly by the fire.
Bannocks are a type of unleavened bread usually made with barley, rye or oatmeal, although modern varieties might use wheat flour in addition to meal, or only flour. Originally bannocks were a simple mixture of meal, water, and some kind of animal fat, but over time some varieties have evolved and become more like scones or pancakes. Bannocks were a dietary staple in Scotland and a wealth of lore surrounds them, such as how they should be made, served, and how they can be used in divination or as charms to cure toothache, for example.
Bannocks are often left as an offering on the Quarter Days, along with butter and cheese, and for each festival a special type of bannock was made – the bonnach Brìde for Là Fhèill Brìghde, bonnach Bealltain for Bealltainn, bonnach Lunastain for Lùnastal and bonnach Samhthain for Samhainn.8
At Bealltainn the bannocks are offered to predators and other sorts of dangers that affect the herds and flocks:
“…The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each are dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them: each then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders says ‘This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep’; and so on. After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: ‘This I give to thee, O Fox! Spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded Crow! this, O Eagle!’ When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle.”9
Otherwise, the bannocks might be left in a hollowed stone along with milk, butter and cheese or caudle, suggesting that the Gruagach of the fields was the ‘particular being’ that was being propitiated.10
At Là Fhèill Mìcheil, September 29th, a similar tradition called the Devil’s Tithe is traditionally performed by taking a piece of bannock dough from the board and putting it on the embers of the hearth until it’s burnt. The burnt dough (the Devil’s Tithe) is then thrown over the left shoulder as the person performing the rite says: “Here to thee, thou rascal [Devil], and stay behind me, stay from my kine!” In this way, the air sealbhaich, or prosperity, of the house or a particular person is assured. The similarities to the Bealltainn rite suggest that the custom may have been moved from Samhainn to Michaelmas in order to give it a more acceptably Christian overtone to it.11
In Aberdeenshire it is said that travellers should leave barley-meal cakes near wells on the hills as they pass by to propitiate the banshee. Failure to make these offerings meant certain death or disaster.12
Special bannocks, made with saliva, can be placed under a bridge ‘where the living and the dead cross’ (I.e. in a funeral procession) in order to cure toothache. The bannock has to be placed there in absolute silence, and as it melts, so the toothache is supposed to subside.13
As dairy products, cheese and butter are a good choice of offerings to help ensure future abundance. At certain festivals, such as Bealltainn in Scotland, the cheese might be of a specific sort, since it is traditional to eat sheep’s cheese and copious amounts of butter with the bannocks that have been specially made for the day.
When butter had been churned in Ireland, “the knife which is run through the butter in drying it must not be scraped clean, for what sticks to it belongs to the fairies. Out of three pounds of butter, for example, an ounce or two would be left for the faeries,”14 Evans-Wentz records. Sometimes after churning the butter was mixed with herbs and then put in a wooden vessel and placed in a bog to ‘mature’ it,15 and it seems likely that many of the bog butters that have been found are the result of this practice, rather than being votive deposits.16
W. G. Wood-Martin notes that fresh butter was thrown as an offering into certain springs or lochs after cows had been driven into the water, in an effort to restore them to health and encourage a good supply of milk once again. This ceremony usually took place on the first Sunday of the harvest (I.e. Lùnastal).17
On the mountain of Minchmuir, Peebleshire, it was traditional to throw cheese into the spring there, called the Cheese Well, as an offering to the Good Folk, “to whom it was consecrated”. Similar fairy wells can be found throughout Scotland, with buttons, pins and other items being left instead.18
Butter, milk and cheese are all traditional offerings made to the daoine sìth, along with bread, eggs and meat. In a ceremony aimed at luring the Good Folk to exchange a changeling baby for the parents’ own child, the baby was left with offerings at a specific spot considered to be a usual fairy haunt (such as a cairn, an old stone circle, mound or dell), and after certain prayers were said the parents would leave the child for an hour or two, returning after midnight. If the offerings were gone, it was taken as a sign that the baby had been returned.19
Butter is a particularly appropriate offering to Brigid on the eve of her festival. When left out for the daoine sìth at night, the butter may be accompanied by some oatmeal, and, “needless to say, particularly when accompanied by whiskey, it disappeared during the night.”20 A dish of potato is also a common offering to the daoine sìth at night.21
In times of short supply of seaweed in parts of Scotland, large quantities of buttery porridge were poured into the sea on the Thursday before Easter (Maundy Thursday) to encourage a good crop of seaweed (used for food, fertiliser and various industries) on the shore. The porridge would be poured into the sea from the headlands around the island near to the areas of the coast where seaweed was usually most abundant.22
Porridge was also offered in Ireland in shallow pits in the earth at Samhainn, reminiscent of the Dagda’s feat of eating huge amounts of porridge (his favourite dish) from a large dugout pit at this time in The Second Battle of Mag Tured, thanks to the Fomorian’s efforts to try and make him insult their hospitality by failing to finish the meal that was provided for him.23
As with porridge, beer (or mead) was used as an offering to encourage a good crop of seaweed. A description of the ritual, performed on the Thursday before Easter, from the late seventeenth century on the Isle of Lewis can be found by Martin Martin:
“…they gathered to the Church of Saint Malvay, Lewis: each family furnished a peck of malt, and this was brew’d into ale: one of their number was picked out to wade into the sea up to the middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture, cry’d out with a loud voice, saying: ‘Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of seaware, for enriching our ground the ensuing year,’ and so threw the cup of ale into the sea. This was performed in the night time. At his return to land they all went to church; there was a candle burning upon the altar; and then, standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a signal at which the candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the fields, where they fell a-drinking their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing and singing.”24
This is one of those areas where other considerations come into play. Alcohol is a poison and it’s lethal to aquatic animals so it can’t be recommended as an offering in water. In north America, alcohol should not be poured on the ground.
Barmbrack, or bairín-breac, is a spiced fruitcake traditionally made at Samhainn in Ireland, and according to Danaher it was sometimes left as an offering to Brigid at Là Fhèill Brìghde as well, along with salt, water, oatcakes, bread and butter, or butter on its own.25
A tithe of corn is commonly made as an offering at Lùnastal celebrations in Ireland. These were buried next to the Rock of Barnane in Tipperary, and were also made at other spots that were the focus of localised gatherings across the country. The first sheafs, or ‘the tip-top tenth’ of the crop is given to the daoine sìth, MacNeill writes, and such a practice is no doubt a hangover of offerings to deities in years gone by:
“In itself, it is interesting that the offering of tithes should be made not near the corn-plots but on a height, often as we know, a hill-summit which it would take several hours to climb. The deity was conceived of as having his home on the hill – indeed in the hill.”27
In addition, such a practice is reminiscent of the tribute that was given to Fomorians by the people of Nemed.28
Eggs are mentioned as an offering in a variety of contexts, usually in relation to offerings of other dairy produce and dietary staples like butter, cheese, milk, bannocks and meat as in the changeling ceremony mentioned above. At Bealltainn, eggs are sometimes left as an offering along with butter, cheese and milk, placed in a hollow stone in the field, in order to protect the livestock from predators. Sometimes a caudle of eggs and milk is used as an offering instead.29
The “meat of fowl” was used during the changeling rite given above, but elsewhere there are more explicit mentions of sacrifices being made. Bulls were killed during the rites to cure the mentally ill at Gairloch and Loch Maree on St Maelrubha’s Day (August 25th), and offerings of milk were also made at this time.30
In Ireland, it was considered unlucky not to kill a sheep or cow for the feast on St Martin’s Day November 11, and in Scotland, a sheep was often killed for the Bealltainn celebrations, which was often eaten communally.31 The early Irish law texts show that a young female pig of about six to eight months of age (known as a lupait), was often killed at Martinmas (thus roughly corresponding with Old Style Samhainn).32
Ronald Black gives an example of a sheep or goat being sacrificed in order to encourage an abundance of fish, in a rite similar to those for encouraging seaweed. Black quotes a Dr Maclagan, referring to the practice on Lewis, c1800:
“A sheep or goat was offered as a sacrifice. The oldest man of the sea was expected to take the lead, assisted usually by the one who came second in respect of seniority and experience. The animal was brought down to the edge of the sea, and after a certain order of procedure was observed, the officiating person, who was a kind of priest for the occasion, in the midst of dead silence, and surrounded by the whole company of those interested, who stood looking on, went down on his knees, and proceeded to kill the victim, whose blood was carefully caught in a dish. This over, the officiating man waded out into the sea as far as he could, carrying the vessel in which the blood was, and scattered the blood as widely as he could on the water round about him. Then followed the disposing of the carcase, which was cut up into pieces corresponding to the number of poor persons in the district, and a piece was sent to each such person, to be eaten by them, but none else would touch it.”33
In a similar instance, Kelly notes that cattle were often bled at Bealltainn in Ireland, since it was believed to be good for their health. Kelly further notes: “In some areas, the bleeding of the cattle clearly had a ritual significance and the blood was not consumed…and was evidently felt to provide magical protection for the cattle.”34 In this we can perhaps see an element of the blood being given as an offering, in order for the cattle to be protected in the coming year.
In 1629, Isabel Young of Haddingtonshire was accused of burying an ox, a cat and some salt as a sacrifice to the devil, and was tried for witchcraft. In reality, MacInlay writes, “a live ox had been so treated by her husband as a charm to cure his cattle, which were diseased.” The ox was supposed to be buried alive in a pit, and the rest of the herd were then made to walk over it, presumably to transfer the sickness to the sacrificed animal.35
At each Quarter Day in the Hebrides, MacCulloch writes, “the spirits of earth and air were propitiated…by throwing outside the door a cock, hen, duck, or cat, which was supposed to be seized by them. If the rite was neglected, misfortune was sure to follow. The animals carried away evils from the house, and was also a propitiatory sacrifice.”36
Salt is valued for its preservative properties, and so in the time before refrigeration it was considered to be highly valuable itself. Perhaps because of its use as a preservative, which meant things like meat could be kept for far longer than if it was fresh, it was often believed to have protective qualities as well.
It is sometimes used as an offering, like on the River Tweed, where the fishermen would throw the salt into the water and sprinkle it over the fishing nets in order to make sure there was an abundance of fish.37 Salt is also sometimes given as a gift during first-footing at the New Year, as a sign that the first-footer wishes prosperity on the household they are visiting. A lump of coal might also be given, to wish warmth on the household as well.38
Sometimes food from a meal becomes an offering, not because it’s particularly appropriate, but because of the circumstances surrounding it. Any food that’s accidentally dropped on the floor, for example, is left for the daoine sìth – “…it was not right to take it back, for the fairies wanted it. Many families are very serious about this even now. The luckiest thing to do in such cases is to pick up the food and eat just a speck of it and then throw the rest away to the fairies.”39
Also in Ireland, food, along with a bed and some other furniture to make a newly-built house more homely, is traditionally left overnight before the new occupants take up residence. If the food is still there in the morning, then it is considered to be a bad sign and that the spirits have decided to not show any good will towards the new house and its occupants. When this happened it was common for the house to be left empty.40
In both Scotland and Ireland, food is sometimes left out at night, either for the daoine sìth, or for any ancestors or spirits that might visit while everyone slept, particularly at Samhainn.41 On these occasions, the food that was left out is likely to have been from the evening meal, which usually consisted of seasonally/festively appropriate foods.
Garlands of flowers are traditionally made at Lùnastal, which can then be worn in the hair, strewn about the place, or worn on clothes where the celebrations are being held. At Ganiamore in Rosguill, Maire MacNeill records that, “…the flowers worn on the hill were buried in a hole before leaving, ‘mar chomhartha go raibh deire leis an tSamhraigh’ (as a sign that summer was ended).”42
Likewise, E. Estyn Evans mentions that fruit (presumably wild fruits like bilberries, or currents or gooseberries in particular, since they are an integral part of the day) and flowers are left at holy wells on the day.43
Food and drink are not the only kinds of offering that can be given. In pre-Christian Celtic cultures, highly valuable objects such as weapons, riding gear, and jewellery could be offered to sacred rivers, wells, lakes, bogs or caves.44
In Ireland, swords, spear ferrules, and brooches have been found in both the river Bann and the Shannon. Also from the Bann, bronze scabbard plates, bronze bowls, bridle-bits and the bronze Bann disc have been recovered from the water. At the lake of Loughnashade, Emain Macha, four bronze trumpets were found along with some human skulls. The consistency of the locations in which these finds are discovered, and the addition of human remains, helps to reinforce the idea that these were ritual, rather than accidental deposits, or hoards that were intended to be recovered. Two gold collars were recovered from a bog at Knock, Co. Roscommon along with many horse harnesses.45
In Scotland, a bronze plate found at Monifieth, Angus in the eighteenth century (now lost), along with plaques found at Norrie’s Law, are thought to have been votive plates, possibly copied from Roman examples.46 Weaponry, decorative items and riding gear are also common deposits across the country, though most examples date from before the Celtic period, or after the Roman conquest.47
Types of offerings seem to have been specific to certain areas during the period 200BCE-200CE in Scotland, with metalwork predominating in the south and east, and wooden or other organic materials comprising a large portion of offerings found in the north and west.48 The reason for this is not clear, but it’s possible that environmental conditions of each area has skewed the data by favouring the preservation of one type of material over another. Availability of materials may also have a part to play.
At Navan Fort, human remains and bronze horns found in a lake nearby suggest sacrificial deposits being made, and the wooden structure that was once built around a huge wooden post at the site, which was then deliberately destroyed, has been interpreted as representing a sacrifice itself:
“The construction of the wooden building, its use, the heaping up of the cairn, the fire and the mound of turves may well have been planned from the beginning as a single series of ritual acts. It has been suggested that the sequence can be explained as a fertility sacrifice to the ‘otherworld’, a place said to be accessible in later traditions through ‘elf mounds’ such as this one at Navan.”49
Tools and equipment used in the processing of raw foods also seem to have become offerings in some instances, with quernstones, used for grinding corn, being found buried in the floor of two houses in Perthshire, and also at an enclosure at Pict’s Knowe in Dumfriesshire, which dates to the first or second century CE. The fact that the enclosure incorporated the remains of a Neolithic henge reinforces the idea that these were meant to be ritual offerings.50
In later times up to this day it was common for silver coins – especially bent silver sixpences51 – to be given as an offering to wells when they were visited for healing or to secure good luck from the waters. In a similar vein, pins, nails, buttons, and beads were also given,52 along with stones of a particular type, colour,53 or even just an ordinary stone that was particularly smooth or oddly shaped.54 Twigs of heather are also attested to.55 These were either thrown into the well, or placed near it on a cairn or forced into (or nailed onto) a tree trunk.
Brightly coloured rags or ribbons – clooties – may be tied to a particular tree next as an offering, usually as a means to leave some sort of trouble or ailment behind. These visits are supposed to traditionally take place before dawn on particular Quarter Days, although today clooties may be left at a tree (usually a fairy thorn or a specific tree near a well or other sacred site) throughout the year.
At St Fillan’s Spring, in the parish of Comrie, people would come to the well and walk (or were carried) around it three times sunwise, especially at Bealltainn and Lùnastal. The well would then be drunk from, and the ailing person would also wash themselves in the water and then throw a white stone onto a nearby cairn that was dedicated to St Fillan, and then before leaving a rag was also left as an offering. James McInlay noted that at least 70 people visited the well for its health-giving properties in 1791 on the two Quarter Days alone.56
The bright colour of the rag or ribbon makes the offering more attractive to the spirits of the place, and so makes it more likely to be accepted. In this way the trouble is also accepted, and so to remove any rags from a place is to take the trouble away with you.57 Although it’s considered to be very unlucky to remove a clootie from a tree – because with it, you might take the trouble – it’s becoming increasingly necessary for clootie trees (or ‘rag trees’ as they might also be known) to be periodically cleared of offerings because of the increasing popularity in the practice, combined with a lack of consideration about whether or not the clootie might harm the tree’s growth. It’s not recommended to use anything other than rags or pieces of cloth that will biodegrade easily, and which are tied loosely to the tree to allow for growth in the meantime.
Since hospitality was considered to be sacred in early Gaelic society (to refuse hospitality to someone unjustly was a great offence), a place at your table can also be seen as a type of offering. At Là Fhèill Brìghde, for instance, a place was often laid for Brigid to come and dine during the night as she went about the houses bestowing her blessing. At Samhainn, a place might be laid for the beloved dead in the same way.58
1 Evans-Wentz, p70.
2 Evans-Wentz, p70.
3 Pennant, p759; Henderson, Survivals of Belief Amongst the Celts, p252;254.
4 Evans-Wentz, p92.
5 Evans-Wentz, p92-93.
6 Evans-Wentz, p37-38.
7 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p87.
8 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p57.
9 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p58-59.
10 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, p87.
11 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p258.
12 Evans-Wentz, p247.
13 Beith, Healing Threads, p138.
14 Evans-Wentz, p37-38.
15 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, p236.
16 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, p50.
17 Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland Volume 1: A Folklore Sketch, 1902, p282.
18 Douglas, Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, 1901, p109.
19 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 2001, p17.
20 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, p82.
21 Evans-Wentz, p37.
22 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1994, p579-580; Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p134; p548-549; p590-591; Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1994, p548-549.
23 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, p40.
24 See Martin Martin; See also Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2000, p590-591.
25 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, p15.
26 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, p15.
27 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, p420-421.
28 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, p53.
29 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, p87.
30 Beith, Healing Threads, p87; MacCulloch, p243.
31 Beith, Healing Threads, p87; MacCulloch, p243.
32 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p85.
33 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p590-591.
34 Kelly, Early Irish Farming, p53-54.
35 Macinlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1983, p115.
36 MacCulloch, p244.
37 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p160.
38 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, ...
39 Evans-Wentz, p70.
40 Evans-Wentz, p75.
42 MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa, p422.
43 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, p275.
44 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, p51.
45 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, p183-184.
46 Laing, p116-117.
47 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, p51.
48 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, p58.
49 Christopher J Lynn, “Navan Fort”, p611 in Sabatino Moscati’s, The Celts.
50 Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, p50.
51 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, p67.
52 Henderson, p186; MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, see pp192-197; Gregor, The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p59: “They had wells, too, called ‘fairy wells’. All that paid a visit to such wellls left something in them – a pin, a button. Such wells seem to have been different from those having a curative power.”
53 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p196-197.
54 Beith, Healing Threads, p151.
55 Henderson, Survivals of Belief Amongst the Celts, p258.
56 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p81-82.
57 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p202.
58 See Là Fhèill Brìghde and Samhainn.